You probably know the Indian parable of the Blind People and the Elephant (Ud 6.4), where a group of folks who are blind-since-birth are brought together ’round an elephant. Each person is instructed to touch some part of the elephant: the trunk, an ear, a tusk, one side, a leg, the tail, etc.
When asked “What is an elephant?” each person describes the elephant as they experience it. The person on the trunk says “An elephant is like a hose”. The person touching the tusk says, “An elephant is like a pipe”. The person on the leg says, “An elephant is like a column.” The guy back at the tail says “An elephant is like a broom.” (1)
The blind people get into an argument; “An elephant is like this! An elephant is not like that!” (2) Things escalate and they end up in a fist fight. (Which must have been something to see.)
Apparently this story was well known in India; I’ve heard another version where a wise king arrives on the scene and corrects the misunderstanding, saving the blind people from their ignorance.
But I propose a different version. What if the blind people say, “Wait a minute. Everybody chill for a sec. What do you think an elephant is like? And what do you think an elephant is like? Okay, well here’s what I think an elephant is like.”
In this way, the people don’t end just with fighting. And they don’t need to be saved by some omniscient guru. Instead, by calming down, by listening to each other, they are able to come to an understanding of what an elephant is like by working together. (3)
(1) I’ve taken liberties modernizing the descriptions.
(2) Translation by Stephen Batchelor in After Buddhism.
(3) This story is still problematic: equating blindness with ignorance, and also did anybody ask the elephant what he thought about all this touching? Topics for another essay…